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A Miracle of Degree
by J.(Channing)Wells


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A Miracle of Degree
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"Jesus god, Murph..."

The briefest of pauses.

"Jesus god, Murph, what am I gonna do now?" The young Dalmatian's voice is wavering on the edge of hysteria again.

Murphy Donham, proprietor, Murphy's Booksellers, est. 1984, Provider of Wisdom and Part-Time Jobs; Full-Time Spiritual Guru, Wellspring of Stability, All-Around Nosy Bastard and Father Figure; Stubborn, Bull-Headed testament to the power of Self-Righteousness...

_That_ Murphy Donham... shakes his head.

"I try to keep a respectable store, here, Michael. And I don't appreciate it when my employees can't control their own language..."

"Fuck the language, Murph! Nobody's here to hear it!" Definitely hysteria, now. "Do you see any fucking customers, Murph? Huh?"

Murphy stands there, stoically. Michael presses on.

"You know _why_ you got no fucking customers, Murph? Can you maybe, think of a single fucking reason?"

Murphy tenses his jaw muscles. Still nothing from him.

"Couldn't be that you've got a fucking SCAB on sta-"

"Michael!" Murphy shifts into stern and commanding. The old man has a hell of a presence when he turns it on. Michael shuts up, a bit lamely. A pause.

"That's better. You gotta keep ahold of yourself, lad. It's all a matter of self-control." Michael somewhat sullenly meets his gaze. "Yes, I'm keeping you on staff, lad. Most folks in this town might not do the same in my situation. The least you could do is show a little bit of gratitude."

Michael shuffles one foot. "Sorry, Murph."

"It's all right, Michael. Y've been through a lot. But that doesn't mean I'm going to expect any less of you from this day forward."

Michael sneers weakly, but his heart's not in it. Murph continues, unabated.

"The customers will come back eventually, Michael, inasmuch as they ever did. Ithaca's a pretty cloistered little city, even with the University, and we don't much care for radical changes. But if I'm forced to close the shop just because I choose to keep one of my best employees on staff regardless of what he looks like, then by hooey, I think I _want_ to be out of business."

Michael doesn't respond. There's not much to say, actually. He looks around the bookshop, at the years of accumulated knowledge.

"You know," he says, finally, "Life really sucks sometimes."

Murphy just smiles and shakes his head. "You've managed to live through a potentially fatal disease and you come out on the other end with an attitude like that?"

"Don't patronize me, Murph."

"You deserve some patronizing, the way you've been acting of late."

Michael growls. "Wonderful, Murph. Tell me how good a mood I'm supposed to be in again. And don't give me all of the 'Life is a Miracle' shit. I've had my share already. Life is _not_ a fucking miracle. I'fact," he says, "I'm hard pressed to find any fucking miracles at all nowadays."

"Now, lad," says Murph, looking at him over one shoulder as he goes over to one of the shelves, "out of all the load of damnfool things that've ever come out of your mouth, that one right there has to be just about the damnfoolest."

Michael sighs, perceiving that Murphy's gone into "wisdom dispenser" mode again. He takes the bait anyway. "All right. Why is that so goddamned stupid?"

"Because, lad," says Murph, turning around, eyes gleaming, "Miracles are all around. Everywhere ye look. Look here." He shows Michael his find from the collection. "Carlyle. One of the great ones. A little bit fruity at times, but he had some good thoughts. And one of the best of them was this: If I were to reach up into the sky right now and touch the sun, that'd be a miracle, right?"

Michael nods, playing along.

"And so," he says, walking over to where Michael is standing, "If I were to reach out and do _this..._" He grasps Michael lightly on the shoulder. "If I were to stretch out my arm and touch someone here with me in the same room, then that's _also_ a miracle. It's all a question of degree."

Michael nods, slightly. "You know, Murph, that's actually pretty dumb, when you really think about it."

Murphy laughs this time. "Michael, Michael, Michael. I'm never going to get this through to you, am I."

"Not if you can't come up with any better examples than that."

Murphy smiles a true corner-of-the-mouth smile. "All right, then. How 'bout something more concrete. Would you think it was a miracle if I told you an old lifelong bachelor like myself could finally manage to fall in love?"

This time Michael is really taken aback. "Murph!" He says, finally. "You're _dating_ somebody?"

Murphy simply smiles, looking more wistful than Michael has ever seen him. "No, lad. No, this was eight, nine-odd years back. I was still pretty old then, too."

"Who?" Says Michael, still desperately trying to come to terms with the picture of old Murph actually dating a woman. It's proving to be a particularly difficult picture to reconcile with reality. "Where's she now? You aren't still seeing her behind my back, are you?"

Murph shakes his head. "No, lad. No. She... erm. She and I... erm... well." Murphy hedges, looking increasingly uncomfortable. He takes a deep breath.


He trails off and turns away. Michael stands there for a time, uneasily, worried about what he's tapped into here.

With his back to him, Murph suddenly says, "Michael?"

"Mm hm?"

"I'm going to be taking the rest of the day off. I trust you know the place well enough to handle it by yourself. Just ring up the purchases, don't bother with the cataloguing project or anything like that, all right?" There is a strange, halting quaver in Murphy's voice.

Michael is dumbfounded. Finally, he manages to stammer out an affirmative.

"Good." Says Murph, his back still turned. A bit stiffly he walks towards the back stairs leading to his makeshift apartment on the second floor. Michael watches him go.

Then, he cautiously takes a few steps forward to where Murphy had stood moments before and crouches down, one clawed finger inspecting the floor.

There, sitting innocently on the well-waxed wooden floorboard, is a single, beaded teardrop.

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